The Basilica Saint-Denis, which since 1966 is also a cathedral (meaning it is now the seat of a bishop), is not as outwardly impressive as the cathedrals in Paris or Reims, but it is important as an early example of Gothic church architecture and especially as the burial place of French royalty for an amazing time span of twelve centuries, beginning with the death of King Dagobert I in the year 639 and extending into the Bourbon Restoration of the nineteenth century.
Inside the Basilica Saint-Denis there are over seventy funerary statues of kings, queens and other royalty lying on the stone caskets where they were once interred. Most of these caskets are now empty, since the corpses were removed, thrown into a pit and destroyed with quicksilver (the chemical element mercury) during the French Revolution in the 1790s.
Some of the caskets and statues were saved from revolutionary destruction by being moved to a museum and declared artworks of national historical interest. Later they were returned to the Basilica and are now all carefully labeled with the names and dates of their former inhabitants.
Unfortunately I have never read much about these early kings and queens, so most of the names meant nothing to me. But I kept on searching and finally found one that I knew something about, namely . . .
. . . Blanche de Navarre (1332-1398), who was famous in her younger years for being the most absolutely beautiful and lovely and gorgeous and irresistible princess of her generation. She was originally engaged (or rather ‘betrothed’) to the king’s son, but then the king himself (Philippe VI) took a liking to her and snatched her away. So at age seventeen she unexpectedly found herself enthroned as the Queen Consort of France, but only for one year, because in 1350 the fifty-seven-year-old king died, reportedly of ‘amorous exhaustion’ from trying to fulfill his conjugal duties to his libidinous young wife.
According to the label, the funerary statue of Blanche de Navarre was made around the year 1371, twenty-seven years before she actually died. The reason for this was apparently that her daughter Jeanne de France died in 1371 and the sculptor Jean de Liège decided to make both statues at the same time.
Here are two more that I had already heard of, namely King Charles V (who lived from 1338 to 1380) and his wife Jeanne de Bourbon (1338-1378). I must admit, however, that I had only heard of them the day before, when I toured the castle at Vincennes, where they primarily lived. Judging from their funerary statues, Jeanne de Bourbon must have been much shorter than her husband. She is guarded by two aggressive little dogs sitting by her feet.
This is a close-up of the head of King Charles V, also known as Charles the Wise. He was only 42 when he died, and the sculptor has not made him look any older than that.
One of the more elaborate tombs in the Basilica of Saint Denis is this one of King Louis XII (= the 12th), who lived from 1462 to 1515, and his wife Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514).
At least fifty books (none of which I have read) have been written about Anne de Bretagne, who was unique in that she was the wife of two successive French kings, Charles VIII and his successor Louis XII.
Her life story has been made into a rock opera, Anne de Bretagne by Alan Simon, which premiered in Nantes in 2009 and toured throughout France between 2009 and 2014. A trailer of the rock opera, narrated by Jean-Claude Dreyfus, can be seen here.
Some of the later kings, including Louis XIV (= the Fourteenth), were buried downstairs in the crypt of the Basilica. The original tombs, along with the corpses, were removed and destroyed during the French Revolution.
Although you have to go downstairs to get to the crypt, which is kept in subdued light, these stained-glass windows of the crypt seem to be lit by sunlight. So apparently it is not completely underground after all.
Down in the crypt there was an exhibit about the funeral of King Louis XIV, who died in 1715. His secret second wife, Madame de Maintenon (Françoise d’Aubigné), did not take part in the funeral. She immediately took refuge at her school in Saint-Cyr-l’École, where she died four years later at age 84.
King Louis XVI (= the Sixteenth) and his wife Marie Antoinette are shown with their heads still firmly attached to their bodies, though that is not the way they were buried, since they were both beheaded by the guillotine during the French Revolution, he in January and she in October, 1793.
This sixteenth Louis was apparently a weak and incompetent king, which is a bit strange when you consider that he was the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the great Henri IV. His descent from Henri IV has reportedly been confirmed by DNA analysis, despite persistent rumors that his great-great-great-great-grandfather Louis XIII was not the true father of his great-great-great-grandfather Louis XIV.
Location, aerial view and photos of the Basilica Saint-Denis on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: The cephalophore.